The EU needs a new approach in the Sahel

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This week’s meeting in Chad has underscored the urgent need for a rethink of the EU’s approach to the Sahel region, write Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana and Dissan Gnoumou. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

This week’s meeting in Chad has underscored the urgent need for a rethink of the EU’s approach to the Sahel region, write Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana and Dissan Gnoumou.

Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana is Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Development committee; Dissan Gnoumou, is a Member of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso

The countries of the G5 Sahel and France met earlier this week in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. While questions of security dominated the agenda, there is an urgent need to rethink the EU’s broader partnership with the Sahel region.

The European Union’s current strategy for the Sahel is more than ten years old and promotes the security and development approach. What is the logic behind such an approach? It is to ensure the security of the countries in the Sahel region, which in turn is supposed to foster economic growth and reduce poverty. Which tools is the EU using to achieve this? Sustained diplomatic efforts, an intensified European military and security presence in the region, including support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, and considerable investment in development cooperation and humanitarian aid. The problem? The interests of the EU and its Member States influence their agenda in the Sahel countries, which leads to a focus on the fight against terrorism and the “management of migratory flows” originating from the region.

However, other challenges in this region remain enormous: conflicts, recurrent droughts and floods linked to climate change, weak governance, an inappropriate agricultural model, forced displacements and social inequalities. Humanitarian needs have exploded and the food and nutrition situation in the Sahel continues to deteriorate. Over the last five years, food insecurity has increased by 25% in Burkina Faso, 91% in Mali and 77% in Niger.

The Covid-19 pandemic represents an additional obstacle. There has been a decrease in coverage of essential nutrition services in health centres due to the reorientation on Covid-19. Restrictions on movement and a lack of information about the spread of the virus and the functioning of health services have had a disastrous impact on the prevention and treatment of malnutrition. Measures to limit the spread of the virus, such as border closures and restrictions on people’s mobility disrupt food systems. Loss of income combined with rising food prices reduce the purchasing power of vulnerable households and add an additional risk to the food and nutrition security of the most vulnerable, including women and children. As a consequence, global acute malnutrition could increase by 20% in the region.

These numbers are worrying and a call for action. They prompt us to question the effectiveness of the strategies put in place. At a time when the European Union is reviewing its strategy for the Sahel and redefining its neighbourhood and international development cooperation, the lessons of the current partnership must be learnt.

The revision of the Sahel strategy provides the European Union with the opportunity to truly overhaul its approach. The strategy must put the people of the Sahel at its heart and meet the needs of the most vulnerable, while respecting the principles of aid effectiveness. It is essential to move away from the predominantly security-based approach and focus more on the resilience of populations. There is an urgent need to give greater priority to the access to basic social services such as health, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and social protection.

As the global pandemic has shown, and in line with the European Green Deal, the EU has a crucial role to play in the transformation of food systems to make them sustainable, resilient and fair, both within its territory and in its partnerships with third countries. Additional steps must be taken to ensure that European exports to the Sahel do not hinder the development of local production such as in the dairy sector, in accordance with the principle of policy coherence for development. In the Sahel, the EU should support agro-ecology and agro-pastoralism, as they are highly beneficial for biodiversity, ecosystems, dynamic territorial development and ensure the access to diverse, nutritious and affordable food.

The European Union must build this new strategy in agreement with the states of the region but also with civil society organisations, administrative authorities and local communities through a more structured and regular dialogue with the EU Delegations, the European Commission services and the European External Action Service.

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